How many committees does it take to fix an airline?

Untitled design (1).png

In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Dilshani Ranawaka

On 1 March, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved $ 164.1 million under the Extended Fund Facility after successfully completing the fifth review for the country. According to the IMF, restructuring and enhancing the governance of SriLankan Airlines and other state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the implementation of price formula are key issues that should be addressed.

SriLankan Airlines has a new CCO and CFO as a result of the numerous numbers of commissions formed to assess and come up with a restructuring process. Presently, the losses alone had accumulated up to Rs. 40 billion in a time frame of 2016-2018.

The solution is pretty straightforward – find the root cause and then come up with recommendations. However, restructuring in the case of SriLankan Airlines appears to be a rather daunting process for the Government, with endless committees and subcommittees working on a strategy. The Government started off by appointing Cabinet members and state officials in the first commission. It took them three years to realise that it is crucial to appoint experts to look into this matter. Even after appointing four committees plus consulting the best in the aviation industry, Nyras, what they have achieved so far is the appointment of a new board and a new management along with the CCO and CFO. Given the climbing amount of debt from operating the airline and also knowing the intensity of the losses, why have they taken such a long time to plan a way out of this?

The first such committee was formed back in May 2017, focusing on privatising the airline. The council was headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and consisted of officials from the Cabinet and other state officials. Following up on the process, it was reported that the Prime Minister was to take the decision on restructuring the airline in July 2017.

“By 31 July, we have to give an internal restructuring plan to the Prime Minister, basically looking at what we have to do internally with SriLankan – irrespective of whether we are getting a partner or not, we need to move forward,” a statement given by then Minister of Public Enterprise Development Kabir Hashim.

However, implementation did not materialise, and on 8 December 2017, the President appointed another special ministerial committee and a committee of officials to assist them to decide the fate of SriLankan Airlines with a deadline of two weeks, with a report due to be submitted on 20 December 2017. The actions regarding the airline were to be implemented on or before 31 July 2018. Why does the Government take such a long time – almost half a year – to implement these recommendations? The role of any government in an economy is to adjust market failures, not to cause more.

By 2018, Nyras, one of the leading aviation consultancy firms, was hired after the initial round of recommendations, and it presented a comprehensive report. However, the consultancy group has now filed a lawsuit against the Government because of delayed consultancy payments. While these measures were taken and international consultants were hired, SriLankan Airlines was still piling up losses at an exponential rate.

By 7 January 2019, the President formed yet another commission to conduct a comprehensive study – review the present vision and mission objectives, strategies, corporate plan, and action plan of the airline – and come up with recommendations for restructuring, which does not consist of any member of the previous committees formed by the President. Does this mean that the previous four committees appointed (two committees in 2017, one in 2018, and another in 2019) are redundant?

Exercising our rights as citizens, we need to push for fast reforms as this is a black hole sucking out tax-payer money. It has taken five committees, including consultancy from Nyras, to address various issues of SriLankan Airlines for the past three and a half years. With these five committees, what the Government has achieved so far is inducting the board of the airlines.

What we can take from this is:

  1. The commissions have submitted recommendations that wouldn’t work

    or

  2. The Government is incapable of implementing these recommendations

    or

  3. The Government is being willfully negligent by not taking action and implementing recommendations.

Given past experiences, these failures indicate a combination of the second and third conclusions.

SriLankan Airlines, which is operated under Emirates – a renowned carrier of United Arab of Emirates, enjoyed Rs. 4.4 billion in 2008 only except for three years during the time period of 2000-2008. The next 10 years, once the airline was taken over by the Government, suffered heavy losses due to the decline in performance and poor governance. The national airline had been climbing down in terms of performance as well as losses.

How many committees would it take for the Government to really execute any of these plans? When the good governance regime started their office in mid-2015, the losses of SriLankan Airlines were Rs. 16.4 million. The losses of the airline had more than doubled up to a cumulative loss of Rs. 40 billion for the time period between 2016 and 2018. It took Rs. 40 billion and three years’ worth of planning to appoint two vital roles, the Chief Commercial Officer and the Chief Financial Officer, to the airline. How enormous should the losses be for the governance to implement restructuring procedures? What would be at stake by then? This is indefinitely an answer Sri Lankans would not like to find out.